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 LAST UPDATE 8/30/12

The Kingmakers by Clay Griffith & Susan Griffith, Pyr, 2012, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-674-8 

Third in the Vampire Empire series, set in an alternate version of Europe. A human army led by a woman with magical powers is locked in World War I style warfare with the vampire legions. There are fracture lines on both sides and our hero, known as the Greyfriar, has to decide where his true allegiances lie and since the leader of the vampire clans is his brother, whether blood is thicker than water Ė no pun intended. I actually donít care for vampire clan novels as a general rule but I found this series Ė which ends with this volume Ė better written than most and sufficiently out of the ordinary that I didnít suffer from dťjŗ vu throughout. It will be interesting to see what the Griffiths try next. 8/30/12

Black Bottle by Anthony Huso, Tor, 2012, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2517-4 

The sequel to The Last Page returns us to Isca, where steam power and magic are intermixed. The dead caliph has been restored to life, which has a mixed reaction from his subjects. The city is now in the sights of a number of foreign powers who would not mind adding some magical knowledge to their own storehouse. Is the woman who raised him crazy or is it something else that motivates her strange actions? What part will a newcomer play in determining the cityís future? Husoís greatest strength is the unusual nature of his setting. His characters are well drawn if not always three dimensional. Potentially a major fantasy figure when he works out some of the kinks. 8/29/12

The Scorpions of Zahir by Christine Brodien-Jones, Delacorte, 2012, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-385-73933-7 

I read this authorís first novel twenty years ago, and this is supposed to be her second Ė although I know of one other title Ė but in any case it has been a long time coming. Itís a middle grade fantasy adventure in which a young girl accompanies her archaeologist father to Morocco after he receives a mysterious message from a man presumed dead. There she runs into a plethora of adventures, some of them involving magic, the destiny of an ancient city still preserved in the present, a mysterious planet which could bring disaster, and villains and friends of various varieties. Itís written down a bit given its pre-teen audience, but not disastrously so and most adult readers should have fun with it as well. 8/19/12

Shade by Richard A. Knaak, Gallery, 2012, $16, ISBN 978-1-4516-5607-7 

Richard Knaak writes mostly sword and sorcery, a lot of it game tie-ins, although the latter are not really distinguishable from his original work. This one is, if I counted correctly, the eleventh in his long running Dragonrealm series, which is not related to any game or movie. The protagonist this time is a sorcerer who labors under a terrible curse Ė he is reincarnated over and over again, which makes it possible to kill him off in one book and bring him back in the next. Although heís the central character, Iím not sure Iíd call him a hero since heís prone to impulses not all of which are benevolent.  Fairly predictable adventures beset him. About average for Knaak, slightly above average for the form in general. 8/6/12

Shadows Before the Sun by Kelly Gay, Pocket, 2012, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-2548-6 

Fourth in the Charlie Madigan series. I have a basic problem with this series, which mixes the off world possibilities of SF with magical creatures. The protagonist is off on a rescue mission this time, hoping to rescue her partner from a kind of living death. At the same time, there are various forces stirring back home which increase the chances that this might be her last case. The disparity between the two genre strains might have led me to drop the book partway through but itís sufficiently well written that I put my reservations aside and actually found it pretty good overall. Not among my favorites but still readable. 8/5/12

The Skybound Sea by Sam Sykes, Pyr, 2012, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-676-4 

Our formidable but not particularly personable hero has a lot on his plate this time around. He and his companions continue their quest to avert the return to the world of the devastating Kraken Queen, but to do so they have to overcome monsters, warriors of both the human and inhuman variety, demons, and other complications. There are also disagreements among their own number as well as a love affair gone awry. The story is fast paced and full of action but for some reason I found the dialogue frequently became awkward and choppy, a problem I donít recall experiencing in either of the first two books in the series. Iím anticipating a possible conclusion in the next title, but Iíve been wrong before. Nice sword and sorcery with some good and bad patches here and there. 8/1/12

Earth and Air by Peter Dickinson, Big Mouth House, 2012, $17.95, ISBN 9781618730589 

I have very fond memories of Peter Dickinson novels Iíve read in the past, science fiction, fantasy, and a handful of mystery novels. Iíd read a few short stories as well, although I only had the vaguest recollection of them. There are six stories here, primarily told in the form of fables. They involve trips to the Underworld Ė the Land of the Dead Ė and what was learned there, trolls, witches, monsters, princes, escaped slaves, and various other entities in a variety of exotic locations. They are beautifully told and move so effortlessly that I was startled to discover Iíd read the book in one sitting. 7/30/12

All Seeing Eye by Rob Thurman, Pocket, 2012, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4516-5222-2 

Iíve had consistent troubles finding this authorís work in local bookstores Ė when there were local bookstores Ė and with the death of Borders it is even more difficult. This is not part of any of her ongoing series, as far as I can tell, although it may be the first in a new one. Jackson Lee is a kind of clairvoyant Ė he can touch objects and ascertain facts related to them. The book opens with Lee as a child surviving the murder of his sister and certain other grisly events connected to that event. As an adult, he becomes a psychic detective who minds his own business Ė and that of his clients Ė until the government coerces him into investigating a mysterious experiment that backfired. This is complete in itself and might be a stand alone, but Lee is such an interesting character that Iíd be very surprised if we didnít see more of him in the near future. 7/27/12

Reaper by K.D. McEntyre, Pyr, 2012, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-632-0 

Sequel to Lightbringer - which I read but somehow forgot to review apparently - a kind of young adult urban fantasy series. The protagonist acts as a kind of gatekeeper for the recently dead, a variant of the Ghost Whisperer television series, although with more complexity. Following the death of her mother, she has to deal with her suddenly revealed nature on a priority basis, as well as a complex web of interactions among groups both normal and paranormal. If she canít solve the mystery surrounding her family quickly, she may find herself numbered among the wandering ghosts rather than simply observing them. There is a sprinkling of very effective scenes that stand out from a solidly written story. Possibly the most promising YA urban fantasy series Iíve encountered. 7/21/12

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, Atria, 2007, $16, ISBN 978-0-7432-9890-2 

Alas, this is the last John Connolly book I have to read until he writes some more. Itís also his only fantasy as opposed to horror, although at times itís pretty dark. A young boy in Blitz era London finds a gateway to an alternate world where the wolves are slowly becoming human, where giants sluglike creatures emerge from the ground, and where enchantresses lure knights to their castles and impale them on giant thorns. We soon realize that the boy is reliving some classic fairy tales, though with twists, and that he is being changed by his experiences, which relate to his home life Ė father recently remarried despite our heroís objections. There is also the Crooked Man, a trickster villain who wants to manipulate the boy to preserve his own life. Not surprisingly, Connolly brings this all off in a masterly fashion. Fantasy fans should pick this up in large quantities. 7/18/12

Wake of the Bloody Angel by Alex Bledsoe, Tor, 2012, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2745-1

The fourth adventure of Eddie LaCrosse. LaCrosse is a kind of cross between a private detective and a bodyguard, against a fantasy world backdrop. This time he is hired to track down a young man who went to sea many years before to make his fortune as a pirate. There are conflicting rumors about his fate and the quest to find out the truth runs into troubles almost immediately, which are overcome in due course only to reveal a truth even more startling than the legends. Pirates, monsters, battles at sea, a fast talking protagonist, swordplay, and high adventure. It doesn't get a whole lot better than this. Bledsoe, who also writes very fine horror novels, is fast becoming one of my favorites in both genres. 7/17/12

Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson, Twelve, 2012, $24.99, ISBN 978-1-4555-0962-1

I confess that I don't like talking animal novels - with a couple of exceptions like The Wind in the Willows. I was less impressed than most with Watership Down and struggled to finish several of the imitators that followed. So I looked somewhat dubiously at this novel about a platypus that escapes from a zoo in Australia and goes on a quest to find a quasi-Utopian lost land accompanied by a wombat. Much to my surprise, this was a lot of fun, in part because the author took it less than seriously, in part because the characters are so cleverly devised that I forgot they were animals for most of the story. It's not all fun and games and there's a test waiting for our heroes but don't be put off by the platypus on the cover. It's much more than that. 7/12/12

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts, Tor, 2012, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2469-6

Third in the Sarah Beauhall series, of which I've previously read only the first. She's a blacksmith turned dragonslayer. The dragons, who can disguise themselves as people, are living secretly among us in an interpolation of Norse mythology. That all gets reduced to back story in this one, which pits her against a serial killer who is using magical powers to prey on people she knows. there's a cult and a few side issues to deal with, but this is pretty much a straightforward urban fantasy with a different cast of supernatural creatures - dragons rather than vampires. It's well written but some of the character speak in this stilted formal tone that I'm sure is intentional but I really don't understand its purpose. I liked this better than the first one. 7/10/12

Blood of the City by Robin D. Laws, Paizo, 2012, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-456-6

A Pathfinder tie in novel, although like most fantasy game ties, it's really just a generic sword and sorcery adventure with references to the game. The novels in this series have so far been pretty good, at least comparable to Forgotten Realms and Warhammer. This one's a good example. Although the plot is relatively familiar - a half breed in a typical magical city runs afoul of the authorities and others mostly through no fault of her own. Imprisoned, she is forced by circumstances to become a more formidable opponent and emerges better able to hold her own in a series of conflicts that follow. It's not going to provide competition for George R.R. Martin or China Mieville, but it's well told, fast moving, and entertaining without being weighed down by the excesses of the subgenre. 7/9/12

The Monster by Garth Nix and Sean Wiliams, Scholastic, 2012, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-46948-7

Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland, Scholastic, 2012, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-44317-3

Time for some young adult fantasy, although these are both aimed at the younger end of that category. The first - second in the Troubletwisters series - is by a pair of familiar names, the second is a relative newcomer whom I assume is also T.T. Sutherland. The collaboration reminded me at times of John Bellairs. Two youngsters with magical powers must confront a well conceived monster. They are troubletwisters, that is, they are the focus for magical crises and must use their wits and gifts to save the world, or parts thereof. It's pretty dark in tone at times and should appeal to older readers as well. I found it quite enjoyable and better than the first in the series. The Sutherland novel is more specifically for younger readers, the story of five young dragons who decide to stop a war - first in a series. I couldn't help comparing it to Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw, which is for adults, which probably made it seem even less sophisticated than it actually is. It's actually quite well written but I suspect it will hold little appeal for adult fantasy readers. 7/7/12

Queen's Hunt by Beth Bernobich, Tor, 2012, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-218-0

Sequel to Passion Play, which I've never seen, so I had to pick up some threads here. The two protagonists are lovers who apparently staged a falling out in order to free their respective hands and confuse their enemies in a complex bit of political intrigue in a fairly standard fantasy realm. Each then sets off on an individual quest to find certain artifacts that will strengthen their position. This installment is mostly about the female half of the duo, who finds an ally in her efforts to secure magical jewels. This is, of course, all very familiar in fantasy fiction and the author doesn't introduce any dazzling new concepts or plot twists, although she does a good enough job working with the material at hand. The characters are reasonably three dimensional and the prose is more than adequate. I found it emotionally flat at times but not enough to spoil things. 7/4/12

What I Found at Hoole by Jeffrey E. Barlough, Gresham & Doyle, 2012, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9787634-3-5

Seventh in the Western Light series, although each volume stands independently. The setting is a mildly fantastic alternate world that reminds me of Victorian England with subtle changes, and the novel itself is in fact written in much that same tradition.  It even looks like a book by Anthony Trollope. The last few have taken on a rather darker tone and that's reflected here as well when our protagonist stumbles upon a whistle that can call up demons. Magic legends, haunted dreams, unseen presences in the gardens, swindlers, and a host of other complications arise. Despite the sometimes suspenseful events, the novel has a relaxed atmosphere that is perfect for a rainy day's reading, or a hot and humid one for that matter. I've enjoyed the series since its outset and look forward to the next. 6/26/12

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness, Viking, 2012, $28.95, ISBN 978-0-670-02348-6

The middle volume of a trilogy that began with A Discovery of Witches. One could read this as either fantasy or horror. Traveling back to Elizabethan England, a woman and her vampire romantic interest are attempting to find traces of an ancient manuscript, while also training the woman to use her awakening magical powers. This gets to be something more than a casual effort because of a secretive society of vampires and other competing elements. I had to take a break halfway through this one because some of the interplay between the two protagonists failed to hold my interest, but I picked it up again shortly and overall found it quite enjoyable. It's kind of a blend of Susanna Clarke and Diana Gabaldon, with a touch of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. So if you enjoy any of those three, you should add this to your shelf. 6/25/12

The Pirate Dogs by David B. Riley, Timescape, 2012, $5.95, ISBN 9781477533543

This is a novella about a pirate ship crewed by dogs in an alternate world. They have a variety of short adventures thwarting the British navy. It's all intentionally silly, of course, with cute twists on some of the tropes of that genre, although without a major sea battle, which is the best part of pirate stories. Clever at times, occasionally perhaps a bit too cute, but good natured and fun for the most part. The novella is an underused form of prose that I wish would regain its former popularity, but I don't see that happening within the mainstream publishing industry.  6/21/12

Permeable Borders by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Fairwood, 2012, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-933846-32-3

Single author short story collections have been on the decline with major publishers for some time now, with much of the slack taken up by the smaller presses like Fairwood. At the same time, while horror and science fiction collections abound in their new home, there have been surprisingly few fantasy collections despite the popularity of the genre with the general public. That means that the few fantasy writers who produce a substantial body of short fiction stand out. Well, even if that was not the case, Nina Kiriki Hoffman would stand out because she has consistently been one of my favorite writers in the shorter form. Her stories cannot be pigeonholed and she sometimes straddles genres because there are elements of creepiness every once in a while, but also a sense of wonder about the universe that I usually only find in SF. This new volume contains sixteen of her stories several of which I had never encountered before - including one original, which is a plus in itself. "Strikes of the Heart", "Home for Christmas", and "Key Signatures" are marginally the best, but the entire book is a treat. 6/19/12

Nightglass by Liane Merciel, Paizo, 2012, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-440-5

A Pathfinder tie-in novel, although I didn't see anything peculiar enough about it to make this dependent on the game. The protagonist is one of a number of children who have been raised with the talent and training to summon monstrous creatures with which their patron/master torments and oppresses the population at large. Isiem is unusually talented and trusted with important missions, but as he begins to see the actual consequences of his actions, he begins to have second thoughts about his part in the suppression. Eventually he is able to bring about at least a temporary peace with the winged people living in the mountains, although the end suggests that more conflict is to come. The author does a better than average job of bringing the setting to life and the characters are quite well done. This series in general has so far enjoyed a pleasantly high level of writing. 6/18/12

Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine, Pyr, 2012, $17.95, ISBN 9781-61614-623-8

First in the Shifted World series. The premise is that in this magical world, the landscape itself is constantly changing, making it very difficult to plan journeys, or much of anything else for that matter. The protagonist is a young woman who is a kind of female Elric, in that her people have been destroyed and she is subject to the will of a kind of demonic creature resident in her body. Even worse from her point of view is that she is essentially working for the same forces that destroyed her friends and family, and this dichotomy has made her depressed and cynical. Her story, which involves her encounter with a man who might yet offer hope for the future, alternates at times with that of her brother, another survivor, is separately trying to find his own way to restore the old balance. Although there's a kind of end to this one in that her life reaches a crucial turning point and she defeats, after a fashion, her nemesis, the triumph is not a final one and there will obviously be more adventures coming. Pretty well done but I don't think the author took full advantage of the unusual setting. 6/16/12

City of the Fallen Sky by Tim Pratt, Paizo, 2012, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-418-4

This is a Pathfinder novel, tie-in to that game system, but as is the case with most fantasy game tie-ins, it's really just a generic sword and sorcery adventure. In this case, it involves a magician who deserted his fellows because of his disapproval of some of their policies. He is living quietly when he inadvertently crosses passes with a powerful local gangleader and that leads to the familiar quest to a far land to retrieve a magical artifact. Several obstacles await them and his old enemies haven't forgotten him either. I've been favorably impressed by Pratt's earlier work and wasn't surprised to discover this is a genuinely well written fantasy adventure despite the standard plot. There are twists and turns and interesting embellishments and well above average prose. The best novel I've read to date in this series. 6/6/12

Magic Lantern by Alex Archer, Gold Eagle, 2012, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-62156-9 

Iíve missed several adventures of Annja Creed, the archaeologist with the magical sword who battles a variety of villains for possession of mystical artifacts. In this one the object in question is an 18th Century lantern which supposedly allows interchanges between our world and one occupied by Chinese demons. Thereís the usual secretive organization that wants to use the artifact for its own sinister purposes, a series of chases and escapes, and a straightforward plot that involves no real surprises.  This series is rather simple in structure but has been surprisingly good and relatively level in quality for one written under a house name. This particular title is by Mel Odom, so as I expected, it was one of the best. 6/2/12

Under Suspicion by Hannah Jayne, Kensington, 2012, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7582-5894-6

Third in the Underworld Detective Agency series, and considerably better than the first two. The protagonist is a woman whose immunity to magic makes her an ideal special agent. She has the appropriate mysterious love interest - potentially two of them in fact - but she's preoccupied by the sudden disappearance of a large number of respectable demon types, whose absence might signal that some world shaking event is in the offing. A much more interesting story than the previous entries in the series, with more interesting character development despite the rather predictable romantic elements, and a somewhat richer prose than in the past. 5/29/12

Liminal States by Zack Parsons, Citadel, 2012, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-8065-3364-3

The blurb from this suggests this is science fiction. It's not. It's a fantasy with mild SF trappings at times. It's also a hardboiled detective story and a western, but not all at the same time. It opens as a western and turns into a hard boiled mystery because two characters are immortal, sort of. They stumble onto a pool in the Old West that enables them to be regenerated, identical copies actually, whenever they die, and that allows us to follow them from the 1870s into what for them is the distant future. There are some clever bits attached to the somewhat disorganized plot and some very good writing, although I confess that I felt less than sympathetic toward the characters despite their travails. This is an interesting debut novel, and I enjoyed reading it, but I suspect that many readers are going to be confused  by the shifting of the narrative style. 5/23/12

The Wandering Lark by Laura J. Underwood, Yarddog, 2010, $18, ISBN 978-0-9824704-6-6

Sequel to Dragon's Tongue, which introduces the bard hero. He has plenty of problems this time around. He's under a curse, he's sharing his body with a second and somewhat obstreperous personality, and he has lots of mundane enemies as well. His friends aren't all that easy to deal with either, to say nothing of cultists and a dragon. And naturally there's a nasty high mage who wants vengeance. Despite the many limbs of the plot, this is a surprisingly relaxed traditional fantasy adventure, although relaxed does not mean it is slow moving. Alaric seems to be a bit harder edged than I remember, but given all that has happened to him, that's perfectly plausible. A pleasant summer read. 5/21/12

On the Head of a Pin/The Gift of Fire by Walter Mosley, Tor, 2012, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3008-6

Two short novels, both fantasy, though very different in setting. The first verges on horror as two researchers working on a revolutionary way of creating movies without live actors discover something hidden within the imagery, something which becomes symbolic of the differences between good and evil. The second story has a very similar theme. Prometheus has finally been released from bondage and visits the contemporary world. He is promptly arrested and becomes dismayed with the way in which humanity has misused the gift he brought to us. So he sets out to reform things. The first story is very good indeed, though perhaps a bit abstruse at times. The second is more easily followed, but tends to preach at times. Mosley is skillful enough to help us over the humps in both stories but you won't be able to read these without recognizing the author's message. 5/19/12

Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont, Tor, 2012, $18.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2999-8

The author is co-creator of the Malazan setting for Steven Erikson's popular series and this is the latest in his own contribution to that realm. It's a kind of kitchen sink fantasy with so many subplots that it's hard to decide which are the more important ones. In a city state recently freed from one form of oppression, a host of others contend. There are ancient artifacts suggesting imminent stirrings of old powers, there are factions with the city, remnants of the invaders are still around, politicians bicker, thieves prosper, a nearby quasi-natural disaster attracts attention, questors searching for a powerful magical artifact, and a people in exile who hope to return.  Reasonably well written but as much as I like many layered plots, this one is perhaps a trifle too busy. 5/18/12

The Princess of Dhagabad by Anna Kashina, Dragonwell, 2012, $25, ISBN 978-0-9838320-1-0

This Arabian Nights style fantasy was first published in 2000 to good reviews, and is now reprinted as the first volume in a projected trilogy. It is a variant of the Pandora story. The princess opens a bottle when she comes of age and releases a kind of genie, the source of wondrous power if she can manage to control him, and it. There's a hint of romance in the modern sense and a lot of romance in the traditional way. The author is from Russia originally, where present tense narration is more common and she uses it here. I found it less intrusive than usual, but it still made it difficult for me to immerse myself in the story. Nicely written, and a nice change of pace. 5/17/12

Princeps by L.E. Modesitt Jr., Tor, 2012, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3095-6

The Imager series continues in the new direction set in the previous volume. The protagonist is a scholar turned political leader, although he still can't reveal his magical talents. He and his wife - and wives are unusual in this sort of fantasy - are sent to a city ravaged by a natural disaster with orders to restore order and set about rebuilding. In opposition is not only understandable chaos, but vested interests, corrupt officials, and other malefactors of various stripes. Hovering in the background is the possibility that another nation might take advantage of the situation to nibble away at the borders, and our hero is not the only one who commands insufficient troops to deal with the matters at hand. When the military confrontation finally comes, he must reveal his powers in order to save the day. But there's trouble brewing for the next in the series because war now seems inevitable. 5/13/12

Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews, Paizo, 2012, $9.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-388-0

A Pathfinder tale, which I believe refers to a role playing game. This is a pretty standard fantasy adventure with a protagonist named Krunzle the Quick, which suggests it is less than entirely serious. It also seems more than slightly derivative of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. The plot involves a thief who is caught in the act and thereafter coerced to engage in a dangerous enterprise from his former would-be victim. The mission involves a runaway daughter equipped with magical artifacts and Krunzle is kept in line by a magical necklace that prevents him from straying from his assigned path. His adventures are episodic and familiar, and while not badly told, it lacks the charm of Vance's Cugel stories, as well as the dry humor and crisp prose. That is perhaps holding it to too high a standard because by itself it's actually kind of fun. 5/5/12

 

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